Israel 'will keep vow of Lebanon withdrawal'

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The Independent Online

Israel is determined to pull its troops out of southern Lebanon by July and could even begin withdrawing sooner, despite Syrian warnings that a unilateral move could provoke an escalation of violence and perhaps even war.

Less than 24 hours afterPresident Bill Clinton and President Hafez Assad of Syria failed to kickstart the stalled Israeli-Syrian peace talks, an Israeli government spokesman, Moshe Fogel, told The Independent: "We are sticking to our timetable. The troops will be out by July."

The Israeli Communications Minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, said the evacuation might even be brought forward. A decision is expected in May. The Chief of Staff, Lieutenant-General Shaul Mofaz, said the army would prefer to leave by agreement, but was preparing for a unilateral withdrawal.

Mr Fogel said: "The main danger is that Syria, Lebanon or Hizbollah might misread the signs. If Hizbollah attacks towns and villages inside Israel, our response will be very, very decisive. Israel can't allow its citizens to be sitting ducks."

He would not specify how Israel would react, but on past performance it might not restrict itself to hitting back at the Shiite militia. Twice in the past year Israel has bombed power stations in Lebanon.

Haim Ramon, one of the ministers closest to the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, said: "I very, very much suggest to them not to test the power of our response." He argued that an Israeli withdrawal would enjoy worldwide support.

Mr Assad prefers to keep them tied down as a bargaining counter. The last thing he wants to see is Israeli troops out of Lebanon if Israeli civilians remain on the Golan Heights. The question asked is how far Mr Assad would go in stoking the Hizbollah boiler.

The United States would prefer to avoid a Middle East crisis in an election year, but Mr Clinton cannot force an unpalatable decision on Israel, as Damascus would like. Mr Barak is committed to a referendum on evacuating Golan settlers. He promised the Lebanese pullback to his voters.

Israeli and Syrian leaders emphasised after the collapse of Sunday's Geneva summit that the door to peace was not yet closed, but Mr Clinton's Middle East troubleshooter, Dennis Ross, offered little hope when he reported to Mr Barak in Jerusalem yesterday.

The summit fiasco removed one of the threats to Mr Barak's brittle coalition. Two of his partners - the National Religious Party and the Russian immigrants' Yisrael B'aliya - were preparing to leave if he gave up the Golan. But a new danger emerged yesterday from the Sephardi Orthodox Shas.

The Attorney-General, Elyakim Rubinstein, launched a criminal investigation after the movement's spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, ordered his followers to curse the left wing Education Minister, Yossi Sarid. Shas leaders, who control 17 coalition seats out of 68, accused Mr Rubinstein of racism against oriental Jews. But Shas's "council of sages" last night decided to stay in the government for the time being.